We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God

For those of you who know your Bible, what comes to mind when you think of Acts 2? Especially Acts 2: 1-13? For most folks, it is Pentecost. And when you think of Pentecost, what is the first thing that comes to your mind? For most folks, probably speaking in tongues. You may also think of Pentecostal churches or a large Jewish festival held 50 days after Passover (Easter). Pentecost is also known as the Feast of Weeks, which celebrated the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, and occurs 10 days after the ascension of Jesus into the clouds.

Most of us are familiar with the scene. Jesus had risen into heaven. The apostles (less Judas), Mary and other women who were with Jesus for much of His ministry and some others, 120 in all, were in an upper room, praying. Jesus has recently told them to go into all the world and preach the Gospel, but He also told them to wait, saying in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

So there they were, in that upper room, waiting, and praying, and naming a new apostle, Matthias, to replace Judas. Then in Acts 2: 2-4: “suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

It is easy to take the following verses, 5-13, as an “add-on” to this monumental event of the coming of the Holy Spirit. To think, well the most important thing is that the Holy Spirit filled the followers of Jesus and they are speaking in tongues and lots of the close to a million people in Jerusalem for the festival heard them. Then towards the end of the chapter, after Peter’s speech, 3000 of them became believers. Thank God!

I would like to propose here that verses 5-13 are the key to understanding why God had the apostles speak in tongues. Actually, to be more accurate, why they spoke in at least 14 different languages.

When working on the translation of the Bible into another language, it is important to be consistent when translating words and phrases which have the same meaning and context. It is especially important to conserve this consistency since similar phrases in close proximity constitute a theme. If you find the same word or phrase several times in a short passage, you can be sure that it is key to understanding what the passage is about.

In Acts 2:5-13, there is one phrase which occurs 3 times, and which I believe tells us why God gave the followers of Jesus the ability to speak in tongues. It is at the heart of what God wanted to do that day, to begin to transform hearts, and thus the world. It is something that moves Jesus from our head to our heart. Vs. 6 says: “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Vs. 8 says: “how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” Then, after the list of the 14 or so languages and regions present, vs. 11 says: “we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.”

They (people from “every nation under heaven” vs. 5) heard of the wonderful works of God in their own heart language, in their mother tongue. Most probably just spoke “passable” “tourist” Greek. But now they were hearing it and understanding it, and it was touching them, in their mother tongue.

In my previous post, I spoke of Sebastian’s son trying to verbally translate what the Bible teacher was saying, but since there was no Bible in his language, he was using lots of Spanish loan words. But when Sebastian sat down to translate Scripture into Mixtec then later read it out loud, the women cried, and people were fully attentive.


I remember the story of a linguist helping the people of a remote village translate the Scriptures, and they took over ten years to find a word to communicate forgiveness. But here in Jerusalem, during Pentecost, these thousands of pilgrims, most from far away lands, heard all those words, which are so hard to translate, life-giving words like grace, glory, forgiveness, resurrection, eternal life, God, etc., translated perfectly into their heart languages by God through the mouths of the disciples. Now these people could go home and tell mom, grandma and others, who probably spoke no Greek, about Jesus. They did not have to be an expert to find a word in their language to express the wonderful things they had heard, God had already given them all the key words they needed so others could understand and come to salvation.

Pentecost is called the birthday of the church. It is much more than that. It shows us that God desires that each person hear His Word in their own heart language. Through this miracle, people far, far from Jerusalem heard the message from their friends and relatives who had traveled there, heard it in words that came directly from the heart of God. Through this amazing act of God, Jesus’ desire that people in Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth hear His message began to happen before the apostles actually began to scatter throughout the world. Some of the people groups are listed: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians.” Wow!

Think about what your life would be like if you spoke English, and the only Bibles available were in, say, Spanish and French. Or Chinese. Lets suppose you, to be able to buy and sell, learned some Spanish, French or Chinese. Not real well, but enough to get around. Now lets suppose that someone tried to tell you about all that God has done through Jesus in one of those languages. Or gave you a Bible in their language. In your mind, you would be trying to translate it all into English, But there would be so many concepts that you really didn’t grasp or have any idea how one might say them in English. But maybe the worst part would be that you would probably conclude that God, since he doesn’t speak English, is a foreigner. An outsider. Something for others, since he can’t speak to me in any real, intimate way. That is more or less how it was for most of the people who came to the Pentecost festival, and even more so for their relatives back home. But God spoke to their heart that day and the world began to change. But there are still millions of people in Mexico and worldwide who do not yet have the Bible in their mother tongue, their heart language.

There is so much more I could say about this, but I think you are starting to get the idea. Consider what Jesus said in Matthew 9:37-38: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Pray for more people to have the opportunity to hear of God’s wonderful works in their own language, and pray how you might be involved, either by going or helping others to meet this most important challenge. And don’t forget to thank Him that you have His word in English, in fact the language with the most versions of the Bible, and published helps to understand the Bible. So no excuses.

The miracle of Sebastian’s translation

In my first blog post I mentioned a Mixtec man named Sebastian. The featured image of the blog has him sitting with me way back in the late 80’s, before I had a computer, translating with him near the door of the small village church. The story of Sebastian is, in my opinion, one of the most inspiring in the recent history of Bible translation, and maybe one of the least known. Back in 1987, one year after I met Sebastian, his story was featured in the Wycliffe publication, “In Other Words.” A number of years later I wrote a short story of Sebastian for a Writers Digest contest, and it made the top 25. A missionary translated that into Spanish and it was published in the Christian magazine Prisma. Wycliffe president Bob Creson’s staff later found the story in 2009, and below I am copying his well written summary of it. (March 2016 update: I just found out that a version of the story of Sebastian is on pages 61-64 of the book by Bob Creson called The Finish Line.)

To set this account up even more, you need to know that in the mid 80’s it was very hard to get a visa to go to Mexico and spend time in small villages. You could only go to tourist spots on your tourist visa. So the question was being asked, “How can we reach all the villages and help them translate the Bible into their languages if we cannot get a visa to go there for more than very short visits?”  It was during this difficult time that I left for a very short trip to try and visit a Mixtec language area. I had permission to spend one night there. In the large market town of the region, I met a missionary who introduced me to a man selling ice cream who was a Mixtec speaker. He agreed to go with me to his village several hours away.

When we got there, a small church service was in progress. We went in and the man who had accompanied us stood up and said, “Brother John has come to learn our language and help us translate the Bible, but he needs someone to go with him to the big city to work with him. Now, if my father can’t go, maybe someone else can.” He had not mentioned anything to me about his father, nor had he spoken to anyone else during the service. But as it was ending, an elderly man came up to me and, well, you can read the rest in the account below.

Notebook cover

Sebastian was 50 years old, an alcoholic with a second grade education, when he trusted Christ as his Savior.  He was 55 – quite elderly for his small Mexican community — when he began translating the Scriptures into his Tezoatlan Mixtec language.  He had no training, no help, not even an alphabet beyond the Spanish one he’d learned in school, but he saw a need.  While he could understand a fair amount of what he read in his Spanish Bible, his wife could not, nor could many others who attended the Bible study in their village.  His heart burned to help them.

Finally one day he decided he had to try. He bought a notebook and set out to translate the resurrection story in Luke 24. It was hard to spell Mixtec words using only Spanish letters. It was even harder to understand the biblical concepts and express them in his own language. It made his usual work plowing rocky fields and hauling firewood down mountain trails seem easy. Nevertheless he kept at it.

He took his beloved notebook to every Bible study, but he didn’t read from it out of fear that he might have mistranslated the precious Word of God.  Then one night as he watched his neighbors sleeping, wiggling or whispering to each other through an unintelligible service, he knew he couldn’t wait any longer.  He slowly stood up, and moved to a position underneath the only light bulb in the room. With trembling hands, he opened his notebook, took a deep breath and began to read. Slowly, haltingly at first, he read those words from Scripture, gaining strength and confidence as he read on.

Several people gasped as they realized that he was reading in Mixtec, their heart language. Then the room grew quiet.  No one moved or spoke or slept. Tears rolled down a few cheeks. The light of understanding shone in their eyes. Sebastian read on for a long time, and when he stopped, he knew that no one present would ever be the same again.

Time passed and Sebastian’s notebook filled up.  His farming suffered, as did his weaving of palm fronds into baskets and hats for extra income.  Money grew tighter, but God always provided for his needs.  He kept translating, and he kept on sharing those newly translated verses with his wife and neighbors. He read at four or five services each week, and the walls began to come down.  God was no longer a “foreigner.” God spoke Mixtec, and the words went straight to Mixtec hearts.

Four years after Sebastian began translating, Wycliffe member John Williams came to Sebastian’s village, looking for someone willing to move six hours away and teach John his language so they could make books and translate the Scriptures.  John could only stay in the village one night, but God led him straight to Sebastian, who asked just one question: “Do you want to leave tonight or in the morning?”

As Sebastian and John worked together, Sebastian eagerly appropriated the new alphabet symbols that made his language easier to write. He just as eagerly contributed to every aspect of their translation and literacy work. Thirteen years later, with joy and thankfulness, Sebastian held in his hands a draft of the whole New Testament in Tezoatlan Mixtec.

Not long after that, God took Sebastian home, his task completed.  The New Testament was joyfully dedicated in 2008 and is now being used by Sebastian’s people in both written and oral forms. Watch the Celebration here.

If you or I had been choosing a mother tongue translator for the Mixtecs, we might have overlooked Sebastian.  He was too old, we might have said, and his health was compromised by his former addiction to alcohol.  He didn’t have a good enough education or knowledge of Spanish.  He didn’t know how to develop an alphabet for a language that had never been written, and certainly he couldn’t translate without one!

But God knew better.  He changed Sebastian’s life first, and then He gave him the vision, endurance and ability he needed to translate many chapters of His Word for his neighbors, providing for his physical needs along the way.  Then He graciously sent John and Judy Williams to help him complete the task.

In the same way, God knows how He plans to reach the rest of the last language communities around the world.  I can’t wait to see how He does it!

Warmly, Bob Creson, President, Wycliffe USA

Why this blog?

I have been involved in helping with the translation of the New Testament into the language of Mixtec, in southern Mexico, since 1986. That was when I first met Sebastian, whose amazing story I will share in a future blog post.

Being involved in the translation of the Scriptures into another language has presented me with a unique and exciting opportunity: a window into seeing Scripture in ways I might have missed when only looking at it through the eyes and worldview of our my language and culture. I feel especially blessed that my “work” involves intensive Bible studies, pouring over verses with people who speak a different language and who are looking at the Scripture through new eyes, as well as with a different worldview. As we discuss each verse, I gain new insights which I had not gleaned in my previous Bible training, both from seeing it from their fresh perspectives, as well as dealing with the semantic and linguistic requirements of their language which the Hebrew and Greek languages, and in my case, English, do not have.

In fact, the name of this blog is also the name of a paper I gave at the 2009 Bible Translation Conference in Dallas, Texas. In that presentation, I shared what I consider are some really interesting insights into the use of “we” in 2 Corinthians and also a different perspective on 1 Corinthians 13. These insights came as a direct result of seeing the text “through the eyes of Mixtec.” In future blogs I will share what those insights are, as well as new ways of looking at many other Scripture passages.

Please note that my “seeing anew” these passages will be my own personal reflections, and do not necessarily reflect those of any organization I have ever worked with. I invite you to look with me at different Scripture passages over the coming months and see if there is something new about that passage which we have never thought of before when reading it just in English, or even Greek. God bless.